In conversation with Nancy Richler

The Giller Prize nominee on the importance of names, Montreal and memories in her book, 'The Imposter Bride'

Photograph by Rafal Gerszak

Maclean’s book reviewer Brian Bethune will be interviewing all five of the Scotiabank Giller Prize nominees. Here’s the third in the series with the author of The Imposter Bride, Nancy Richler. (Find all of our coverage here.)

Q: You grew up in Montréal, but you left for years.

A: I did. I left I left when I was 18 and didn’t go back. I’ve visited but I’ve never lived there since. I just moved back a year ago so it’s like a completely different city.

Q: Is it still a mainstay in your fiction?

A: Well, it is in this book. I’ve written three books and this is the first book that was set in Montréal. My first book was set in Vancouver, my second was set in Russia – although I had characters coming to Montréal and also to Argentina – this is the first book set in Montréal, and as a result it was the hardest book to write.

Q: Is it going to be a multi-volume, multi-generational sequence? You’re moving forward in time.

A: I am. I started with Throwaway Angels, which was actually contemporary, and I have to say when I finished it I thought, “How did my character come to this?” and then I went back to the 19th century and now I’m up to sort of my generation, so I’m not sure where the next one will be. Both of my books, this one and the last one, have left pieces that I’d be interested to explore later, but I never know exactly what I’m going to do until I actually start writing.

Q: It’s the writing itself that provides the idea for more writing?

A: Exactly, yeah. I can think I know what I’m doing and then I sit down and it doesn’t come to me until I start writing.

Q: Imposter Bride grew out of the first sentence, one you had in mind. Is that normal for you?

A: That’s how it is, yeah. I sit down and I do write most mornings, but most of it goes in the garbage and then a sentence comes to me and then that’s it.

Q: You wonder about what could be done with this sentence? Like it’s a real event: what is its meaning?

A: It’s true. I mean, if it weren’t true I don’t think it would engage writers. It has to feel very real, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to persist.

Q: I remember Philip Pullman once assaying that he had to have the ending down pat or he couldn’t start.

A: That’s so interesting, because I just had lunch with a a new writer—she has a wonderful manuscript that’s just going out now to editors – and she said she starts with the ending. She was the only one I’d ever heard that from, and now within the course of an hour that’s the second time I’ve heard it!

Q: They both sound like my entire family, who cannot read anything until they read the end, then they go back to the beginning.

A: Well, you know, I actually have to read the endings too because I can’t stand the tension.

Q: That’s exactly why they’re doing it. Even if somebody they had started to like is going to die they can think, “Ah, well, at least I know not to get too worried about him.”

A: That’s right, yeah, that’s exactly how I read.

Q: I was wondering what we should think about having three Montréal women shortlisted out of five people, and from different corners of the city’s core communities, too.

A: I thought about that, and partly of course there’s always the sensibilities of the particular jury, right? So there’s that, and we are all from very different backgrounds. I feel I would have written a very different novel about Montréal had I been living there, and I think Alix [Ohlin] is also not living there at the moment, although Kim [Thúy] is. You know, it’s a very dynamic, very difficult city for me in many ways, and I think there’s more tension in that city than in, let’s say, Vancouver, which may stimulate a certain kind of writing. It’s so diverse and everybody’s rubbing up against each other. For me, that leads to a very dynamic writing scene. So I don’t know if that has anything to do with everybody being shortlisted, but I’ve certainly felt that since I moved back.

Q: Right. Well, Kim Thúy should be quite interesting in that way because immigrant francophone writing isn’t that exposed in English Canada.

A: No. I was just delighted to see her on the shortlist. I’m struggling, I’m trying to learn French. I’m of the generation that did not learn French – I was pre-PQ – so it’s just mortifying. I’m learning it now and I’m reading her book in French and I can tell you it’s beautiful but it’s going to take me the rest of my life to… I’m glad there’s a translation out now.

Q: There’s a line in your novel, at the very end, when Ruth arrives in Israel: “Everything is personal here.” I’ve seen this said before about Israel. And so in your novel, too, everything’s peculiarly personal, too, isn’t it, how each person deals with the things that happen to them, and they’re less judgemental, I think, than they would be in a more settled community.

A: Yeah. Well, they are less judgemental, and that was certainly my own experience. I don’t know that other people had that experience, but that was my experience of that community growing up, and it still is. Even though I’m from a very traditional community there’s a lot of latitude for differences in behaviour and acceptance, but that might be a matter of my temperament, what I see, and I can’t generalize, but that’s my experience. What I meant about Israel, everybody takes everything so personally, like everybody… you arrive and they think you’re a relative, and people are both more intimate immediately and also more defensive, so that’s sort of what I meant there.

Q: Almost personal in an opposite way?

A: That’s right, exactly. I did see it that way. But yeah, also the community I grew up in, again because I had so many friends whose parents were Holocaust survivors we just grew with a different range of behaviours that we considered, you know, that’s just how people are.

Q: The novel also has some personal and family history, not just social details, doesn’t it? Your grandmother’s marriage, for one?

A: Yes, my father’s mother. There were three Richler brothers and one of them was supposed to marry my grandmother and he didn’t want her so she got another brother instead, so that’s personal. I know nothing beyond that, but that came out of my own family history.

Q: So not just the rejection from the intended but marriage with his brother.

A: Yes. In this novel Nathan just was quite smitten with her. I don’t think that was the case with my grandfather – I don’t think it was quite as voluntary on his part – but he did marry her and they had a long marriage and produced nine children, so it lasted.

Q: The mysteries of human existence, here.

A: Really!

Q: Your characters never treat false names as though they were of no import.

A: That’s right. That too actually came out of personal history. I did have a friend in high school – I’m sure I had more than one friend – but one who told me that his own family name was not his family name, that the identity was stolen in order to get through to immigration, and so I was really interested in that: people had survived the war and then in the end their name didn’t survive. And also, did he feel responsibility to the name they did carry forward? And I do have a thing about names in all of my novels. I actually try to control it a bit because I find I don’t want to be one of these writers who repeats himself, but names just have an enormous significance for me, and I think they do for a lot of… you know, I don’t think I’m unusual that way.

Q: Yes, names are not just labels you stick on: they change everything, and living a lie can kill you.

A: They do. I was born the day my grandfather died, the one I just told you about. His name was Jacob and had I been a boy I would have been named for him, and I wasn’t so I have this kind of bland 1950s name, Nancy, you know?

Q: There’s a late line too in the novel about being curious about origins is what makes us human, and so you need to know your name for that.

A: Yes. You do. And again this was the experience of so many of my friends, nobody knew where they went back more than their parents, like it was all erased. As I wrote, it’s like somebody walks through life with an eraser. People didn’t know anything, they had their parents and that was it, they didn’t know anything before.

Q: Right. As though to say: Arrival at immigration, 1946; life begins.

A: That’s right, and what happened before? And we know we’re affected by it, now we’re finding out that it affects our genetics, that we have some sort of genetic memory. So it isn’t just imagination, it’s something that really does affect us all.